How firefighting and the National Guard are leading one Nursing student to service in her community and beyond

Tabitha Hernandez is a 2023 graduate who is earning her A.S. in Nursing, but she’s not new to providing lifesaving intervention in her community. On top of serving in the National Guard since 2014, Tabitha is receiving her degree from one of the College’s most rigorous programs while working as a full-time firefighter on the Philadelphia Fire Department’s Engine 64 in Lawncrest Park.  

Tabitha joined the fire department in 2019 after working as an ER tech. At the time, the firefighters she was working with saw her as a natural fit for the department, given her military background, and encouraged her to give it a try. 

An experienced medic in the National Guard, Tabitha was already accustomed to responding to emergencies with focus and a level head. On fighting fires, she says, "You don't even worry about your safety. When you hear that people are trapped, you don't care about anything. You just think, ‘Okay, we need to get to that fire and extinguish that fire as soon as possible.’”

Tabitha works four days on and four days off, and describes her relationship with her platoonmates as being like a family. “The four of us go to fires together, we eat together, sleep together, we do everything together. So, it's like they're a part of my family now,” she says.

But becoming a firefighter certainly wasn’t easy. In the beginning of her career, Tabitha would wake up at 6 a.m. to work out. She needed to build the strength and endurance needed to work for hours at a time lifting heavy equipment. On top of that, there are very few female firefighters, and Tabitha persisted despite instances of sexism and racism, particularly when filling in at other companies.  

Tabitha says that one of her proudest moments at the College was when she was accepted into the highly selective Advanced Placement Nursing program in the spring of 2022. Tabitha credits her parents as hard workers, saying they served as an inspiration for her to pursue such a challenging career path.

Tabitha has had to maintain a certain level of flexibility to support her unstoppable attitude towards success. Sometimes, that looks like waking up early to get extra study time in. Other times, that looks like talking to a therapist for support with stress management and prioritizing her own needs. And others, that looks like submitting an assignment during an actual junkyard fire. 

“Last semester I had a clinical assignment, and I brought my laptop to work with me,” she recalls. “There ended up being a huge junkyard fire, and at 10 p.m., I took a break and submitted my assignment right before it was due.” 

Tabitha also credits the support of her fellow students, study partners and friends as helping her get through school. “Ebony, Danielle and Ashley -- if it wasn’t for them, I would not be here today,” she says. “They would be in my ear, like, ‘Hey, did you finish that assignment?’ And if I didn't text them or call them, they would [say], ‘I know you're stressed out right now, but you got this.’ They’re sent from heaven. I didn't think I was going to find friends like that [here].”

Tabitha plans to take the NCLEX exam to get her Nursing certification this spring before being deployed. Until she leaves, she’s hoping to find a job in pediatrics. 

As a sergeant and non-commissioned officer (NCO) in the National Guard, Tabitha wants to use her medical expertise to not only provide health care, but also solid leadership and advocacy. “I like patient care a lot,” she explains. “I like to advocate for people because a lot of people are not able to speak up for themselves. I’ll be the one to say, ‘Hey, he has knee pain. He cannot go on a ruck march.’ I’m not afraid of that.”

As a Puerto Rican woman from Kensington, Tabitha says she not only wants to be deployed to help other people, but to be a leader as well. “I feel like there aren’t enough good leaders,” she explains. “I don't see a lot of females as NCOs and there's not a lot of role models [like] me.”

Tabitha wants people to know that successes come from never letting obstacles or failures stop you from reaching your goals. 

“A lot of people thought I was not going to do it,” Tabitha says. “So, if I could just [tell] people if I can do it, anyone can do know, I'm making mistakes. Yes, I've failed a couple of times. I'm still here. I'm still here. Do not give up.”